It’s no secret that the cruise industry’s shore excursions are a somewhat contentious issue. Often marked as a huge money-spinner for the lines themselves, they can often leave passengers feeling exposed to high prices, while also taking agents out of the picture by not including them as a “commissionable” purchase.
Now, it seems, a change is underway. Tripashore, headed and ran by cruise industry veterans and linked to A2BTransfers, launched earlier this month to try and shake up the shore excursion market.
Lee Strongitharm, Tripashore’s CEO, says his ambition is to lead a disruptive brand that is going to challenge the virtual monopoly cruise lines have enjoyed over their excursion programme. The good news is that the company is forecasting that 98 per cent of its business will be done through travel agents.
We sat down with Strongitharm to find out more about the company, why it was founded and where he intends to take it
Cruise Adviser: Tell me a little about your history and the foundation of the company?
Lee Strongitharm: I have been in the travel business all my working life, it’s in my DNA. I spent 19 years at British Airways, 12 years at Carnival Corporation and then one year at MSC Cruises. I’ve now been at Tripashore for six months.
I have always had an urge to create and build a disruptive brand that I can lead. After I left British Airways I worked on a long-haul airline start up with the concept of a business class service and an economy price tag, we named the brand Flyspace and our aim was to bring dignity to long-haul travellers. Unfortunately post 9/11 wasn’t an easy time to raise money and we couldn’t raise all the £55m that we needed to make it fly!
While at Carnival I was working as Cunard’s commercial director and had three new build ships arriving and the QE2 retiring during my tenure. They were fantastic times. However, when you work in a big corporation, although you treat the brand as your own, unfortunately you don’t share much of the upside when you have delivered real breakthrough strategies. Having really enjoyed the move from the airline to the cruise sector I became part of a matrix structured organisation at Carnival UK looking after just one area in commercial but for multiple brands and it didn’t suit me at all. I realised I am really a brand man. I was attracted to MSC because they had great ambitions for growth in the UK and were investing heavily in new ships and demonstrated desire to expand in the UK & Ireland. With a chance to work with a friend and colleague Giles Hawke it seemed too good to be true. Unfortunately the longer timescales for investment and deployment that MSC Cruises had didn’t really fit with my own ambitions and so I decided in March of this year to try and create a new business. My urge was to create a brand that changes the face of its sector and takes on the status quo. The cruise tour market was a leading contender as it is dominated by cruise lines and they have controlled supply and margins for too long. So I set about exploring the sector from the consumers eyes.
84 per cent of customers would buy quality guided tours from their travel agents
CA: Why do you think there is a business case for Tripashore?
LS: The high cruise line margins and their ruthless focus on costs (before service) in their tour programmes was a good place to start. I commissioned customer research into the sector in May, wanting to investigate two trends that I had highlighted during my time working on that side of the industry.
The first was that customers buying the cruise line tours were in decline, proportionate to the capacity. The second was that customers were much more willing to find local suppliers to help them see destinations
We conducted research through online questionnaires with customers and travel agents, speaking with passengers embarking and disembarking in Southampton (with the blessing of David Noyes, Carnival’s CEO), customer focus groups as well as desk research by a team of graduates. The research pulled in more than 600 responses and the overarching outcome was that regular cruisers want a more immersive destination experience. Destination is the primary reason for selecting a cruise for customers (54 per cent of customers primarily select their cruise based on its destinations).
CA: What did you do with the research?
LS: When we specifically looked into why cruise line’s own tours were in decline the results were very interesting. We were told that customers don’t like being herded around in large groups, they want the inside track in iconic attractions and they don’t feel that large group tours are good value for money. They also don’t like waiting in queues, great guides are critical and they don’t like being taken to places to be pressured to buy so the cruise line supplier can reduce their costs. They also don’t like being nickled and dimed for extras on their tour.
When we asked why customers were more willing to find local suppliers than before, the results shed a lot of light on what we should do with Tripashore. Eighty-four per cent of customers would buy quality guided tours from their travel agents if that were possible. Having a selection of small group guided tours with the very best itinerary in each port would help them to decide how to get the most out of their time ashore. They are much less concerned about taking tours outside the cruise lines offer if they deal with a company that can give them a return to ship guarantee.
CA: What is Tripashore’s USP?
LS: The Tripashore proposition is built by cruise experts for expert cruisers. It sells primarily through travel agents offering outstanding earning potential. The travel agent is incentivised to harvest their customers’ cruise tour requirements with the opportunity to increase their profits by 48 per cent without any additional cost of acquisition. We have contracted with the world’s leading cruise tour suppliers and the supplier is incentivised to deliver a fantastic tour experience. With 5,000 UK travel agent bookers able to win a free tour for themselves for every booking they make before February 29, 2016 Tripashore is set for a big future as the Agents Champion in Cruise, be sure to check our booking conditions.
At Tripashore we offer a wide selection of experiences, from our Core Collection to the Mercury Collection and our Go Your Own Way Collection, meaning that Tripashore has something for everyone.
Core Collection Tours are for small groups and are fully inclusive with wi-fi either on the vehicle or at a dedicated stop. There is also complimentary bottled water, entrance fees, audio devices (where required), refreshments (where applicable) and free time when it will enhance the overall experience.
Mercury collection are if you are unable to find what you’re looking for within our Core Collection; essentially we can build a bespoke tour for you.
Go Your Own Way is a transfer only tour which takes guests from the ship straight to the heart of the destination, English-speaking escort, complimentary bottled water in some major cities and a city map.
CA: How have you curated your product offering? Where are you starting/intending to grow to?
LS: Our launch has focused on the UK cruise market and in particular European destinations with the rest of the world to follow. We are confident that we have all major cruise line destinations covered along with some exclusive tour offerings thrown in for good measure. We are working closely with our tour providers to make sure our product offering is evolving and we stay ahead of the curve. We have a worldwide distribution goal and will be focusing on other English speaking countries in the near future.